German-born director Roland Emmerich can’t stop destroying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. First he incinerated the White House in Independence Day (1996), then he washed it away in a tsunami in 2012 (2009). Now he returns to the president’s place with White House Down, a visual feast for the eyes that’s a ’roid-raging mash-up of Die Hard and Air Force One.
This is an action movie for action junkies, a mindless fantasy excursion that tears apart one of the safest places in the world, and does so with gusto. Former soldier and current Capitol Police Officer John Cale (Channing Tatum) wants to leave his job protecting the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) so he can join the Secret Service and impress his daughter Emily (Joey King), who hates him. Unfortunately, his Secret Service interview is with a former flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who can’t look past how grossly unqualified he is for the position.
Rejected, John and Emily take a tour of the White House. While smarty-pants Emily banters with the tour guide (Nicolas Wright) the White House is attacked by terrorists, leaving her and 61 hostages at the mercy of Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke) and his mercenary crew. John, however, is able to escape with President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) after the head of the Secret Service detail (James Woods) fails to fulfill his duty.
Sure, the premise is laughable and the White House falls far too easily, but if you’re not willing to play along with James Vanderbilt’s script, odds are you wouldn’t have bought a ticket in the first place. What is relevant about the script is that it’s neither insultingly dumb nor overly contrived, two virtues that are essential to keeping the audience engaged when machine guns aren’t firing, which is rare. The story holding together also forgives the cheesy dialog — like when Sawyer, who’s wearing basketball sneakers, says, “Let go of my Air Jordans!” to the bad guy clutching his feet.
As for the action, it is stupendous. The visual effects are weak in the opening shot with the helicopters but otherwise fine, and the fight scenes are nicely choreographed and shot with clarity. The highlights come from the pure ambition of certain sequences, particularly in the irony that although most of the story is set indoors, Emmerich still sledgehammers in a car chase on the South Lawn that ends inside a swimming pool. If nothing else, you can’t say Emmerich isn’t trying to give us as much bang for our buck as possible.
Performances in action movies are often an afterthought, and for the most part that is the case here, with the exception of Foxx. As an Oscar winner (Ray) with the presence to convincingly do anything he wants on the big screen, Foxx is appropriately reserved and uncharismatic as the leader of the free world. His Sawyer is not a fighter — that’s Tatum’s job — nor is Foxx doing an Obama impersonation, as many may presume. At a time when the tendency is to never be outshined, kudos to Foxx for taking a step back and delivery a fine, fittingly restrained performance.
Those who saw Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart in Olympus Has Fallen earlier this year will enjoy a lighter, less vulgar and less violent version of the same type of content here, and with more stars to boot. Although the pacing could’ve been a bit tighter to allow the story to move quicker, White House Down is a tense and enjoyable popcorn muncher that delivers on its promises.